Man, this thing is dusty. Hello again. Let’s just move on, shall we?
Last week, I went to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with my boyfriend and several of his friends. I’ll just come out here and admit straight-up that its main attraction for me was the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch is in it. Because. Benedict Cumberbatch.
BUT, that is not what I want to talk about. In fact, there are a lot of things I could say about this film, but I’m not going to. Instead, what I want to talk about is how TTSS has colored my opinions on screen adaptations of novels. Which is oddly appropriate, considering that one of my last posts was also about adaptations.
This story actually starts with my boyfriend. He’s one of those people who somehow manages to be well-read about everything. I do not know how he does it, but given just about any conversation topic, he could link you to several blog posts, an academic article or two and sometimes even a hilarious yet thoughtful comic on the subject. He’s like a walking citation machine. He first expressed an interest in seeing TTSS several months before it was actually released, having heard about it because he is obsessed with WWII & the Cold War, and that’s just the kind of thing he hears about. I promised that we would see it with very little intention of actually doing so, like I always do when he’s being nerdy about something I’m not all that interested in (sorry, babe :P), but then…Cumberbatch. Ahem.
Anyway, as with all other things, Drew did his homework before we went to see this movie, and he had come to the following conclusion: TTSS is better if you know exactly what is going to happen. Not better in the sense that the book is better than the movie (although I kind of want to read it now), but in the sense that it’s actually hard to follow and thus enjoy the story if you don’t already know what’s going to happen. Because of this, he insisted that we read a summary of the story beforehand, including character names and the basic plot trajectory. The three people we saw the movie with did not do this. Guess who liked the movie and who didn’t?
TTSS went on to win both “Outstanding British Film” and “Adapted Screenplay” at the BAFTAs (yes, I follow British award shows; shut up), and is nominated for the Oscars in the latter category as well. This begs the question: is it really a good adaptation if you have to already know the story to properly appreciate it? Isn’t that sort of cheating?
My answer is a somewhat confused yes-and-no. TTSS has the disadvantage of being both a spy movie, which intentionally tries to confuse the audience, and a British film, which means that it’s rather less bang and more sizzle, as compared to American cinema. It’s like James Bond, but without the promise of guns, explosions and hot women to keep viewers engaged (don’t lie–you know that’s the only reason you see Bond movies). That means that a viewer who doesn’t know exactly what they’re getting into is going to get bored, miss something key, and then spend the rest of the movie in a state of constant confusion and frustration. It would seem that, as an adaptation, it fails to stand on its own, and will only appeal to those who have read the book already.
But if you do know what you’re getting into, even if you don’t know the whole plot (which, admittedly, I did), I think the movie is totally capable of standing on its own. You just have to pay very, very close attention. That means you can’t drift in and out, eating popcorn and joking with your friends and whatnot, because you’ll miss it and then it’s all over. Which, I think, is a refreshing change from the type of cinema you usually get–the kind you could start watching halfway through and find the thread. In short, it’s a book in movie form, which makes it possibly the truest adaptation I’ve ever seen. But still not something I would recommend to the wider public.
So I summarize thus: go see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but do it with your eyes wide open and paying attention like you’ve never paid attention in a theater before, and you will enjoy it. And then be glad that most movie “adaptations” take the concept with a grain of salt, because if all adaptations translated this directly, they would be practically unwatchable.
And don’t see it with people like me and my friends, because two of us had phones go off, and another brought individually wrapped candy with very crinkly paper. Oops.
“It’s the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?” -Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
P.S. On the subject of British cinema: Eddie Izzard on British vs. American Cinema
pg. 97 of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift